As Hong Kong prepares to mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, his earlier works exalting the hero will be heard. But it is his later, more sensitive work exploring humanity and the face of difference that we should be listening to.
In 2017, I published a book titled Beethoven and Freedom. The manuscript was completed during the “umbrella movement ”. The dedication page reads: “As I write these words, I am conscious of the freedom I have because I can no longer take it for granted. The Umbrella Movement and its political backlash has flushed out the demons from the crevices of this gleaming metropolis. Freedom is on trial, and its ideals distorted as a clash of wills in a zero-sum game where any victory is destined to fail.”
In the wake of the violence engulfing Hong Kong today, the book seems more prescient than I had imagined. It is a difficult book, heavy with philosophy; it was never meant for a general readership or to influence Hong Kong. After all, the idea that Beethoven might have something to say in the current situation  seems arcane, if not hopelessly naive.
But as we witness the violence , the barricades , the fires , and the slogans calling for freedom , Hong Kong is not so far from the revolutionary fervour that gripped much of Europe during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars.
It is in this context that Beethoven’s music is regarded as heroic. Indeed, his Third Symphony is titled Eroica (Heroic), and Beethoven is often styled in the image of this symphony. Hong Kong is now fashioning its own heroes , both among the protesters and the police .
The heroic Beethoven captures the idealised image of such heroes today as it did back in the early 1800s. This is a music with volition, a music determined to seize history and shape the future with its ineluctable drive towards cadences that speak of violence and resolve. Beethoven’s symphonic structures are autonomous and self-determined; they give the law to themselves.
And this is precisely the situation in Hong Kong: all sides are heroic precisely because they give the law to themselves. They act as if obligated to an ideal that must be realised according to their vision to bring about an order that would guard Hong Kong’s future.
But there is a cost. “Die to become” was a phrase coined by Goethe that captured the revolutionary spirit of his time. Such sentiments are brazenly declared  across social media today in Hong Kong.
Heroism is premised on death. The task of the hero is to die at the very moment of victory, to be immortalised in the pantheon of glory of whatever temple they are fighting for. Heroic narratives are always tragic. And Beethoven knew that well.
In the first London publication of Eroica, the work is described as a “Heroic Symphony to celebrate the death of a hero”. The narrative is easy to hear: after the monumental exertion of the first movement, the second movement is a funeral march. Hong Kong is marching to the beat of a similar tragedy  – a revenge tragedy  in which everybody dies. We can all be heroes, but however much we might want to celebrate the hero now, the price of freedom seldom purchases the gain it promises.
Beethoven knew that too. For the composer, heroic freedom never came. In his later years, in the mundane reality of a world where the Viennese preferred to forsake the nightmare of revolutionary heroes for a more frivolous lifestyle, Beethoven’s music veered in a different direction.
Beethoven’s late works are both a critique of the heroic and the sound of an alternative freedom. The music rages against its own heroic acts, at times to the point of unravelling the coherence of the music. Works such as the Grosse Fuge, or the Hammerklavier sonata, reveal the underlying violence that the heroic narrative glazes over; they demonstrate the impossibility of resolution.
There is also something else in the late works: an extreme tenderness, a fragility, a vulnerability so open that it could make you blush. Instead of seeing the world as something to overcome, it is as if Beethoven saw the face of the other as a stranger to welcome, be this the face of an enemy or a refugee. This is a precarious freedom. The face of difference  is no longer a reason to master and kill the other, but a reason to care. It is as if the music captures a glimpse of something inviolably precious despite the ugliness of the situation. The late piano sonatas and string quartets often radiate such an aura.
Is Hong Kong prepared for such a music? If you look into the face of someone on a different side and all you see is hate, then late Beethoven is not for you – unless you intend to change. The face of the other always demands a decision. To kill or to embrace?
Beethoven’s late works do not give us any easy answers, but they do ask the same question. And it is this question that we urgently need to ask in Hong Kong before the hero lives out its tragedy to the end. 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Hong Kong is preparing  itself to trumpet his music in all its glory. As we celebrate the anniversary, the heroic Beethoven will undoubtedly be heard, but it is precisely the other Beethoven – the humane Beethoven – that we need to listen to and, hopefully, learn from.
Daniel K.L. Chua is the Mr and Mrs Hung Hing-Ying Professor in the Arts and chair professor of music at the University of Hong Kong
Source URL: https://scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3040613/what- beethoven-can-teach-hong-kong-protesters-tragedy-ipside
 https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-and- crime/article/3005456/hong-kongs-occupy-protests-ve-years-after-all
 https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3037034/hong- kong-protests-10-top-reads-citys-social-unrest-marks
 https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3037267/student- shot-and-man-set-ablaze-one-most-violent-days-hong
 https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3037813/campus- kitchen-production-line-making-petrol-bombs-and
 https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3033941/more-100- petrol-bombs-thrown-11-mtr-station-entrances
 https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3021518/liberate- hong-kong-revolution-our-times-who-came-protest
 https://www.scmp.com/comment/letters/article/3035782/real-heroes-hong- kong-protests-are-its-reghters-medical-workers
 https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/3021987/hong-kong- policeman-lmed-aiming-gun-protesters-hailed-hero
 https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3038645/options- running-out-last-hong-kong-protesters-trapped-polyu
 https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3022168/refuse-hong- kongs-protesters-everything-and-they-will-ght-bitter
 https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3040135/hong- kong-protests-tens-thousands-return-streets-after-days
 https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3025894/liberal-or- conservative-hongkongers-must-learn-listen-those-they
 https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/article/3009067/beethoven- celebration-focus-hk-phils-new-season-lang-lang